“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden. If you’re looking for quiet desperation in modern-day America, you’d be hard-pressed for a better place to find it than the “dubiously named” Oasis Mobile Estates in Riverside County, California, the setting of Asale Angel-Ajani’s debut novel, A Country You Can Leave.
Russian-born single mom Yevgenia Borislava and her Afro-Cuban daughter, Lara, have alighted on this repository of broken dreams, the latest in a string of temporary addresses the two have occupied for all of Lara’s life. At 16, Lara finds herself on the awkward cusp of adulthood, a situation that’s difficult enough without her strained relationship with Yevgenia and her yearning for a long-absent father whom she knows only through her mother’s possibly unreliable stories.
On top of that, Lara’s economic situation is brought into high relief due to a zoning mistake that lands her in a high school intended for the nearby gated community that, economically speaking, might as well be on another planet. At school, Lara surrounds herself with a small diverse group that includes a gay Black aspiring poet named Charles and a compulsive white shoplifter named Julie, both of whom find Yevgenia more fascinating—or at least less embarrassing—than Lara does.
For most of the novel, readers are treated to the passive-aggressive back-and-forth between a mother and daughter who haven’t quite learned a healthy way to express their devotion to one another, until a violent altercation with an outsider becomes the crucible in which their relationship will either be forged or splinter irrevocably.
Angel-Ajani’s unflinching portrait of this hypernuclear family is captivating and complex, with a richly drawn supporting cast and occasional arch humor that leavens the intensely emotional backdrop. A Country You Can Leave gives voice to a group of star-crossed characters struggling to transcend Thoreau’s trap.